JOHN KELLY HAS VIOLATED the cardinal rule of being White House chief of staff: Advance the president’s agenda and don’t become the news. It’s past time for him to go.
In just six months, the 67-year-old Boston native has squandered his credibility with a disastrous pivot to politics from a career in the Marines. He could have used his experience in a nonpartisan, multicultural military that includes thousands of immigrants to unite politicians to forge a compromise on immigration. Instead, he derailed deals on the undocumented residents brought to this country when they were children and suggested “Dreamers” were “too lazy to get off their asses” to apply for protections.
In the most influential unelected position in politics, Kelly has misled and insulted America; failed to redirect Trump from campaigning to governing; entrusted responsibility to dozens of aides without security clearances; denigrated a black congresswoman and refused to apologize despite video proving his accusations false; defended Civil War secessionists; and ignored FBI statistics to exaggerate threats from Latin American and Muslim nations.
“Kelly has failed in almost every way you can fail as White House chief of staff. Even by his own narrow definition — he was not going to manage the president, just run the West Wing — that train is off the rails,” Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” said in an interview.
Last October, Kelly recalled a bygone era when — according to him — “women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.” Yet then-General Kelly defended a Marine colonel in 2016 accused of sexually harassing female Marines and, as chief of staff, was aware at least since October of abuse reports against staff secretary Rob Porter that surfaced in his background check and prevented his security clearance, but promoted Porter anyway. After The Daily Mail interviewed not one but two ex-wives who accused Porter of abuse, one of whom had a restraining order, Kelly reportedly urged Porter to “stay and fight.” When a photo of the other former wife, with a black eye, was published, Kelly contradicted the White House account of how the aide was let go.
In any other White House, Kelly would already be fired for gross incompetence, failed crisis management, misrepresenting reality, even insubordination.
None of this was unpredictable; I wrote last July that Kelly’s mission to impose order in the White House was a foregone failure. I regret I was right, but all it took was looking at his half-year as Homeland Security secretary and leading booster of a Muslim ban and a wall with Mexico to see Kelly wouldn’t let facts, the Constitution, or separation of powers get in the way of a nativist ideology. Kelly told Congress to “shut up” and not question immigration authorities. Kelly claimed we are “under attack from criminals” —though official statistics show violent crime has fallen sharply over 25 years — and “from people who hate us” —though fewer than half of the 14 jihadis who committed deadly terror attacks on US soil after 9/11 were born overseas. All of this was knowable.
Most of the press portrayed Kelly as a moderating “grown-up” who would bring order to the chaos. That was wishful groupthink. Kelly is only the second general to serve as chief of staff; Alexander Haig lasted a month under Gerald Ford, and Kelly’s doing no better. Whipple says Kelly is challenging Don Regan, who was ousted after clashing with Nancy Reagan over failure to contain the Iran-Contra scandal, for worst chief of staff in modern times.
If Kelly leaves, who will take the job — and can anyone be successful? I’m dubious. In December 2016, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, convened 10 former chiefs to advise incoming chief Reince Priebus. Whipple says they tried, but “virtually all of them knew that, given the nature of the president he was about to serve, God help him. This was mission impossible.”
It still is.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.